The long day of build-up to the grand jury verdict in Ferguson, Mo., and its aftermath brought out the worst in cable news, from partisan scorekeeping to chaotic images with very little context.
Ferguson — and the decision not to indict officer Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown — hardly marks the first instance of a high-profile and tragic killing of an African-American youth, following the Florida shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman. But it continues a trend of Fox News Channel and MSNBC immediately retreating to their ideological corners, while CNN – despite seeking to remain even-handed – again fell into its more lamentable habits, filling time for hours with a “Breaking News” headline that became increasingly absurd the longer the channel went without any additional news.
What again emerged was cable’s near-addiction to conflict, which the unrest and looting that followed the announcement yielded in abundance. And while one can admire the long hours and bravery exhibited by on-the-scene reporters under trying circumstances, the nature of this sort of coverage yields such a narrow aperture their hard work produces heat, perhaps, but scant illumination.
At one point early on, MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell suggested conditions on the street looked relatively restrained “if we are to judge what we can get within our frames,” an almost unwitting admission of just how little one can glean watching the available pictures from a studio — or for that matter, a living room.
Nevertheless, cable news outlets were so smitten by images of burning buildings that they left them up, split-screen style, while President Obama spoke regarding events in Ferguson, as if they didn’t dare look away, even for a few minutes, lest they miss something dramatic.
“Obviously, it’s a chaotic situation,” said MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow.
Even attempts to keep matters in perspective felt undermined by the constant stream of video accompanying those observations.
“I don’t want to imply that all of Ferguson is aflame,” said CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “Seeing the pictures, you might think that. That is not the case at all.”
Yet as he spoke, he shared the screen with the overhead view of a raging fire. Who are we to believe: the white-haired anchor, or our own eyes?
Not that there’s a solution, or even an alternative. This is a world of real-time information, often for the better, but sometimes for the worse. And in the case of a story such as this, being at the scene live might do more to obscure what’s happening than reveal it, but there’s no denying it makes for dramatic TV.
That said, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to wish that these news organizations – even those with a strong partisan slant – could literally wait until the smoke clears before trying to score political points.
Fox News usually benches its more vociferous talent on election nights, but an event like this didn’t sideline Sean Hannity, who brought back local Ferguson committeewoman Patricia Bynes for what amounted to a rematch, calling her “irresponsible” for having referenced racial profiling and police brutality in the past. Hannity wasn’t looking for answers but rather a straw woman to knock over, and when he abruptly told Bynes he had to let her go, she snapped, “Yeah, you gotta let me go.”
Bynes followed Hannity’s much friendlier chat with former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, there to push his familiar pro-law-and-order mantra, having already triggered anger in some quarters for comments he made the day before regarding black-on-black crime on “Meet the Press.”
At MSNBC, meanwhile, Al Sharpton continued to uncomfortably straddle the line between host and activist, questioning the grand jury’s legitimacy hours prior to its decision, and announcing during his show that he would be with shooting victim Michael Brown’s family on Tuesday — again inserting himself into a story even as he covered it.
“We will not speculate here tonight. Just the facts,” Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly – who interrupted a summer vacation in part to criticize MSNBC for employing Sharpton – stated before the grand jury’s decision.
But there was plenty of speculation to go around Monday – before the grand jury’s determination, and after. And almost nothing about that, given cable news’ current state, would qualify as a surprise.